The Cat, the Cross and the Cream

Salman Masalha


Is the Israeli cat trying to guard the cream? Or are we going to get lost in Nazareth? And what is the connection between all this and the people that is vanishing as the end of the millennium approaches? Are you confused? This is a sign that you are on the right track.

Once upon a time in the land of the Galilee, in the time before the state of Israel, there was a village where the children of Ismail, Christians and Muslims, lived side by side, or, as we like to say here - in peace and tranquillity. The years passed, each man under his vine and his fig tree, until one day someone in the Christian neighborhood began to excavate foundations for an additional house for his growing family. He dug and dug, until he suddenly found that he had exposed an ancient mosaic decorated with a cross and depictions of figures from the New Testament. The entire Christian neighborhood came out to see this discovery. The heads of the community decided that instead of building a house on the site, they would keep on digging until the whole archeological site was uncovered. Thus they unearthed another cross and another Virgin, and the celebrations got underway in the Christian neighborhood. Sheep were slaughtered in honor of the discoveries, and the sounds of rejoicing reached the homes of the Muslims, whose neighborhood was at the other end of the village.

When the Muslims heard the sounds of rejoicing coming from the direction of the Christian quarter, they decided to send duly appointed representatives -- the mukhtar and other notables -- to find out the reason for the sudden jubilation. The delegation set out, and when they came to the gates of the Christian quarter, they were greeted by distinguished representatives of the Christians. The latter conducted the delegation to the site and explained to the Muslims that the cause of the rejoicing was the discovery that the village had been a Christian site since ancient times, and as proof of this they displayed the antiquities that had been uncovered. The Muslims looked, and were awe-struck, yet gradually a veil of unhappiness descended on their faces. After feasting with their Christian friends, they returned to the Muslim neighborhood, where they related what they had beheld. After some discussion, a decision was taken in the Muslim quarter that the following morning they too would begin to excavate in their neighborhood. They dug and dug but they found nothing. For seven days the excavations continued, and then they dug for another month or more and still they found nothing. Despair began to trickle into their hearts. But, as they were trying to decide what to do next, all of a sudden everything changed. One of the diggers came running to the mukhtar and told him that they had found proof that the village belongs to the Muslims. Everyone rushed to the site and they were overwhelmed with joy. That night, the festivities began. They slaughtered sheep. Sounds of singing filled the air and their echo was heard in the Christian neighborhood on the other side of the village.

From a distance, the Christians heard the joyful noise coming from the Muslim neighborhood and decided to send representatives to find out what was happening. The priest and a number of other people volunteered to set out as a delegation. They went to the Muslims, who greeted them smiling from ear to ear and invited the Christians to partake of the slaughtered sheep, as the customs of hospitality require. After the feast was over, the Christian delegation inquired as to the cause of the rejoicing. The Muslims did not want to answer in words because they knew that what the eye sees is far more telling than what the ear hears. They conducted the Christian delegation to the site, where the mukhtar stood and announced to the Christian delegation: Here we have discovered that the village has always been a Muslim village. When the priest asked: And what have you found? The mukhtar, without blinking, said: Behold. Here we have found Muhammad's cross.

Is there any connection between Nazareth and Islam? And will the millennium bring bloodshed? At the beginning of the century that is about to end, a French scholar named Casanova published a study of the beginnings of Islam. His book was entitled Muhammed et la Fin du Monde. Among other things, Casanova noted that Muhammad's new religion, Islam, which was born in the Arabian Peninsula, came into the world under Christian influences. Muhammad, according to Casanova, had a very strong sense that the end of days was imminent, and therefore preparations must be made.

I myself have vague memories of the city of Nazareth. At the end of the 1950s I got lost in its lanes. In the mind of a little boy who had come from the village, the visit to the developing city of Nazareth was an unforgettable urban experience. I and a friend, another little boy of about my age, walked hand in hand through the maze of the market, when suddenly my family disappeared from view. Thus we found ourselves lost among the crowd that filled the market on weekends. Many years have gone by since then, and even today I sometimes feel like I am still looking for something in Nazareth, but it seems that I have not yet found myself there. In the Nazareth of today, on the brink of the millennium, the people of Nazareth are looking for something else there. In the Nazareth of today, they are looking for their bones, not for themselves.

Now, we are but a footstep away from metabolism of the toxic spiritual materials of the end of the millennium. And Casanova, whom I have recently recalled, is also the name of a street in Nazareth. Not far from there, on the road that leads up to the market of Nazareth, stands the Christian Church of the Annunciation from which the streets branch out that lead to the market where I got lost. There, in the open space in front of the church, Muslim activists have taken possession of a piece of land. There, a large tent stood that became an improvised mosque on the grounds that exactly on this spot is the grave of Shihab al Din, a soldier who served in Salah al Din's army, which liberated the holy places from the Crusader conquest. This site has become a source of friction between Christians and Muslims in the city on the brink of the millennium.

To paraphrase the previous story: Have the Muslims at the end of the millennium in Nazareth also found Muhammad's cross? Or is this another sword that is destined to rip the city to shreds and not leave any bit of it standing? The Israeli government, of course, is trying to mediate between the Muslims and the Christians! And in this state of affairs, I cannot be sanguine. Peace in Nazareth is already in the process of being slowly digested in the gut of the Israeli cat that is guarding the cream in Nazareth.

Jerusalem, Autumn 1999

French: "Le chat, la croix et le pot crème", Qantara: magazine des cultures arabe et méditerranéenne, Nº 34, 1999‑2000

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